We wanted adventure. We wanted to experience the real Philippines, its culture and its realities. Well, I wanted to experience these things, Carmen just wanted to be with me.
A big part of the reality of The Philippines are calamities, of which the Philippines experience a couple every year, and some years those calamities make world head-lines. The Filipinos mostly take these calamities in stride, but even for them, some of these are wrenching.
Calamity is an old-fashioned word, not much heard in modern Western culture. We hear calamity and we think Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill. But it’s a common word in Philippines, perhaps a vestige of the colonial American days. It holds its original meaning in The Philippines which is disaster, especially a natural disaster with cataclysmic effects on the fortunes of people – death, injuries, destruction of their already dilapidated habitat, dislocation and disease. The Philippines Government always sets aside a substantial contingency budget to deal with the after effects of the almost certain natural disasters that will occur in the coming year. The budget’s actual line item is, calamity fund.
I remember reading about Typhoon Yolanda which devastated the Vasayas Islands of Philippines in 2013, in particular Leyte and its capital city, Tacloban. It was a Category 5 hurricane and roared out of the South Pacific passed over the south of Samar and made a direct hit on the town of Tacloban before crossing Bicol and clobbering Cebu, Negros, Panay and Palawan islands before carrying on across the South China Sea to Viet Nam and finally petering out in China. Thousands of Filipinos died in the devasting winds, and the tidal bore; many lost souls were never found, either buried in mudslides or swept out to sea; many more died later of cholera and dysentery. Six years later I visited Tacloban (in January and in November, 2019); the devastation was still talked about, and in evidence. To my untrained eye the rebuilt shanties hardly looked different than most dwellings throughout the Philippines, with their shipping pallet walls and rusted corrugated steel roofs; the only obvious evidence of rebuild are the newly constructed hotels, Jollibees and Mcdonalds scattered here and there among the ruins and greying concrete walls.
In returning to Philippines I wondered whether I would meet a typhoon and what I felt about that. It’s one thing to read about hurricanes in Florida, and typhoons in the Orient, it’s another to actually live through one. But I thought, if one comes, it comes, and if I’m living my remaining years with vigour I won’t avoid Philippines because of this potential calamity.
Typhoon season runs from September to late December, the second half of the rainy season. In fact typhoons can show up as early as July. I was arriving at the end of October and in all likelihood one or two would introduce themselves to me while I was here. Typhoons are reported in the media in Philippines just as they are in America, breathlessly. The locals mostly shrug, just as veteran Floridians do. If one is truly bearing down on them they batten down the hatches and wait it out; most of the time the warnings decline from potential catastrophe to just another tropical storm. Two such storms drove themselves toward the Philippines shores in November, and I watched the news reports mildly apprehensively, wondering which way the wind would blow; both beared north before reaching land and only clipped the top end of Luzon; all we got in Tagaytay were dark clouds. But on December 2/3 Typhoon Tisoy barreled across southern Luzon and then Mindoro before moving on across the Philippines Sea to China. It was a Category 4 direct hit on Tagaytay, and it was awesome to experience the relentless wind and driving rain that never really let up for 24 hours. It was a long and nervous night watching the patio doors of our 15thfloor apartment rattle and shudder, wondering if they would shatter into the room. The next day was sunny and bright, just like every other day, the only difference was all the downed trees and pieces of houses and palm trees lying about.
A three weeks later, Christmas Eve, it was Ursula’s turn, mere Category 3 level winds but ten times the rain of Tisoy. Once again our rattling patio doors survived but the apartment was flooded as the driving rain drove in and around the fittings.
I began to feel like a veteran. I had survived two typhoons. But do I want to experience this again?
Volcanos are common in Philippines as these islands form part of the huge Pacific ‘Ring of Fire’, shared with New Zealand, Indonesia, Taiwan, Japan, Aleutia, and California. There are many volcanos in the Philippines, most of which are ‘dormant’. But since the entire archipelago is on the edge of a tectonic plate, no-where on these islands is really safe. There is no law of nature that says a ‘dormant’ volcano will not erupt again, nor even when an ‘active’ volcano will become very active, or not; nor even why an entirely new volcano might emerge right below your feet.
Taal Lake is a giant volcano, the rim on which Tagaytay is located, and the Wind Residences in particular, is an ancient caldera 18 kilometers across. The island in the lake is itself a series of volcano cones, hundreds actually, most of which are merely steam vents, and only one of which, the lake within the island in the lake, is an active cone, bubbling and steaming away. In an amusing case of perceptual bias, the cone most frequently photographed on the island is actually a long ‘dormant’ cone. Taal Island Volcano had a significant blow up in 1754 which destroyed the towns around the entire area but especially west. In fact, at the time Lake Taal wasn’t even a lake but a part of the Bay of Batanagas of the Philippines Sea. The massive eruption created an isthmus and the trapped water of the bay became the lake. In time the salt water was gradually diluted until Lake Taal became a fresh water lake, with its own evolved species of fish and wildlife. The island volcano blew its top again in 1968 and burped in 1991. The Philippines Volcanic and Seismic Institute has monitors scattered around the volcano, as it does at all the other active volcanoes in Philippines, and reports on their activity on a scale of 0 to 5, where 0 is inactive and 5 is lava flow. Taal Island Volcano is active and its activity scale has been 1 or more for decades. When we arrived at Tagaytay to begin our five month residency the PHIVOLC Institute had been reporting Level 3 for the little volcano since March. Our landlord didn’t mention this little fact, and all the residents of Tagaytay, and the residents down the ridge from Tagaytay, Talisay, were living life unconcernedly. More than 2000 people lived on the island itself, managing the fish pens and conducting daily tours to the volcano rim by horseback. Naïvely, I was willing to take the tour and my companions were willing to accompany me on my quest to live life vigourously. [You can read more about this little adventure here: https://afspublishing.ca/tagaytay_tribune/volume-6-december-9-week-6-the-visit/]
On a quiet Sunday afternoon, five weeks later, we got a telephone call from our landlord’s agent. She told us that she had an advisory from the management of Wind Residences that Taal Island volcano was spewing ash but not to be alarmed. Hmmm, our view from the 15th floor looks east across the town not south across the lake. I had no idea the volcano was now more than a little active and I wondered how long it might have been until I did notice if Dian hadn’t called. By 10:00 pm that little volcano was spewing ash 14 kilometers into the air and bits of ash and dust were falling like rain. We also were feeling minor earth tremors from the agitated earth. We sat at the kitchen table playing cards trying to distract ourselves but the occasional swaying of the light fixture overhead was not comforting. Carmen headed for the ground floor, but as only one elevator was operating we walked down fifteen flights of stairs, or maybe it was only twelve. There are no floors marked one and two, and there is no thirteenth floor.
After an hour sitting in the lobby with many other worried residents, some going some coming, I told Carmen I wasn’t spending the night here, I was going back to our apartment for the comfort of our bed. This building is designed for Category 8 earthquakes, we’d be fine. Carmen was torn between loyalty to me and loyalty to her own skin. I won. But at ~4:30 in the morning we felt a major movement, and not of the Hemingway kind, and a fairly large bang. This was Taal shuddering at Richter 4.1. We were shaken, but not stirred.
By 8:30 we were stirred and began packing. Carmen’s son and son-in-law had been able to negotiate with the National Police to allow them to come to Tagaytay to evacuate us from Wind Residences. We took up residence in Quba Qabana Resort Hotel in Dasmariñas, 50 kilometers north. We never slept at Wind Residences again.
After a week or so the ash had stopped falling, the PHIVOLC warning had been downgraded from 4 to 3 and the ever resilient Filipinos were already sweeping ash off the streets and their roofs and their lives. But many residents within 7 km of the volcano were not allowed back for weeks and weeks, until the Taal was further downgraded to Level 2. But the residents of Taal Island can never go home again, nor the residents of Talisay which will become a ghost town.
I had asked for adventure in my sojourn to Philippines, most of which I planned and executed for myself, as you can read in The Tagaytay Tribune. I had anticipated typhoons, and even earthquakes, but not the volcano. And at this point I’m not testing fate by talking about earthquakes. I have had quite enough of calamities.
And then came COVID-19, the novel coruna virus from wet markets of Wahun China, a calamity that touched the whole world.